All in all is all we are

At the three minute and 24 seconds mark of Nirvana performing “All Apologies” on MTV Unplugged, Kurt Cobain slowly raises his right hand and rubs his chin. His eyes are sealed shut and his expression is pensive as if he’s reflecting deeply. At this point, it’s about 48 minutes into the band’s legendary 14-song performance. Only a cover of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” remains on the setlist. But first — Cobain lights a cigarette before the intimate and adoring crowd.

Moments before sinking into the drop D cave that is “All Apologies” Cobain opens himself up to the crowd, “Any requests?” he shouts. The Meat Puppets, one of Cobain’s favorite bands had just left the stage after rocking three of their own songs with Nirvana. At a time where MTV called all the shots, Cobain had pulled off doing much of this show his way. To this day, it’s remarkable that The Meat Puppets had such a prominent placement during Nirvana’s moment in the Unplugged spotlight, and they handled it beautifully. Those three slots could have been used for an acoustic rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, or “Lithium”, or how about a new song debuted on this small stage that coincidentally was the largest stage in the world in 1993.

When you have a concise set to plan for and catalog full of gorgeous songs, building out the flow is an art unto itself — especially when you know parts of it will be chopped up and compiled into a national TV broadcast. I’d like to think The Meat Puppets placement within Nirvana’s set was somewhat premeditated by Cobain. The catch is, naturally you believe the opposite — there were so many impromptu moments between songs, many of which had drummer Dave Grohl stating things like, “What’s next, what are we playing?” — and at one-point suggesting Cobain perform “Pennyroyal Tea” solo. But for Cobain, a tortured internal artist, he had just experienced a comforting rush of performing three tunes with his pals in a David vs. Goliath fashion. Riding that wave, he then opens up, jokes about needing a plectrum and then falls away into…

“What Else Should I Be?”:

My point is this… when Cobain sang “All Apologies” on the New York Sony Music Studios stage 25 years ago now, you believed him. Cobain was smart. His songwriting mantra was melody first and he knew how to leverage his discomfort to attract a room better than anyone I’d ever seen. And on this night, he let the world in for a minute, while at the same time, he somehow blocked everyone out. “All Apologies” was for him, it seemed personal. But later on, it was for you. It was sweetly confessional. It was Cobain wearing his heart on his sleeve, displaying his art in the most naked way possible. He made himself accountable.

Cobain occasionally explained, “All Apologies” was about a feeling, not the words — just like their Unplugged show. The signature “All Apologies” guitar riff is rhythmic as it sets you on course for a journey, and the only time you actually hear Cobain state the words “all apologies” is right after, “what else should I be?”

During the three minute twenty eight second Unplugged rendition, Cobain barely moves from a stoic position where his head is tilted down to the right. His eyes seem laser focused also aiming to the lower right, while the left side of his mouth powers out the words. He’s slouched in his chair accenting the candle lit stage and draped in a raggedy green cardigan. He sneaks off…

“Find My Nest of Salt”:

“Everything’s my fault. I’ll take all the blame, aqua seafoam shame.” There’s an alluring balance to the verses of “All Apologies”. The first line is delivered quietly, with melodic trepidation. The counterpart is feisty with rasp and a gnarl of expression. There the yin and yang that surf off the same emotional foundation.

About two years ago, one of MTV Unplugged’s first producers, Bruce Leddy, explained to me — that when Bob Small and Jim Burns came in with the title and idea for Unplugged, they found a very receptive network eager to prove that their stars were legitimate artists despite all the video trappings. The original concept was to have singer-songwriter Jules Shear serve as host to two groups or individuals who would join him on stage in the round with a small audience, where they would perform each other’s songs and do some classic covers. It was supposed to be raw and unrehearsed, to showcase real musicianship in the moment, in an intimate setting without all the bombast of lighting and smoke that were the hallmarks of the era. The pilot was with Squeeze and Syd Straw, who were certainly not mainstream at the time. Some artists saw it as a chance to get on the channel without being the hit video band of the moment (The Alarm, 10,000 Maniacs) and sometimes the labels saw it as a way to force their new artists onto the channel when they didn’t yet have a hit. As it gained traction, bigger artists began to see it as a viable venue, and the turning point was probably Don Henley, who brought in a string section, did lots of rehearsing, and eventually released a platinum-selling album from the performance. This changed the intention of the show permanently and it then became a showcase for well-choreographed acoustic performances that could sell an artist’s back-catalog with new versions of beloved hits.

Nirvana was able to dip into both the initial intent of artistry while also plugging into the latter as they were arguably the biggest band in the world. Let’s note again — their smash hits including “Heart-Shaped Box”, the explosive lead single off the new album In Utero — that they were out touring on at the time, were not played!

But “All Apologies” was and it contained more of lasting impact than all the others combined. “Sunburn, freezer burn”.

“Choking On The Ashes of Her Enemy”:

We lost Kurt Cobain a short five months later, on April 5th, 1994. Exactly two months to the day prior, the Unplugged version of “All Apologies” was released as the promo single for the upcoming fall debut of the live record. Nirvana’s performance, which went against the grain in every possible way — resulted in becoming their most successful release, having been certified five-times platinum and winning the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album in 1996. “All Apologies” is also the last song on the band’s aforementioned final studio record, In Utero.

On April 10, 2014, it was performed by surviving Nirvana members Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear, with lead vocals by Lorde, at Nirvana’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. It was the final song of the set.

But why? In terms of the extensive legacy that is Nirvana and the radiance that was Unplugged, why all the dramatic emphasis on “All Apologies”? Because on November 18, 1993, you feel Cobain really meant it.

All in all is all we are.